Ezra Nawi, a Jewish Israeli, helped Palestinians set up an outpost adorned with the Palestinian colors (above) to protest an illegal Israeli settlement. (Photo: Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times)
It's not easy to get a laugh when you're giving a talk in a church about the Israel-Palestine conflict. But I managed recently. When someone in the audience said he was afraid of being called an anti-Semite if he criticized Israel, I replied, "Oh, I've been called an anti-Semite lots of times, even though I'm Jewish. You just get used to it." That drew a major chuckle from the audience.
But it wasn't really an honest answer. I have been called an anti-Semite in public as well as in private. And it has gotten somewhat less painful over the years. Yet, I've never gotten totally used to it. It's unjustified; it's nasty and it hurts. There's nothing funny about it.
So, it's disingenuous for me to tell others just to get used to it, that it's merely the price you have to pay for speaking your conscience. It is indeed a price you may have to pay. But there are serious issues here that deserve serious consideration.
For those of us who live in the United States, the anti-Semitism slur should recall the dark days of the 1950s, when right-wingers called left-leaning peace activists "un-American." The House Un-American Activities Committee struck fear in the hearts of the left simply by hurling the dreaded epithet, and with good reason. The committee wielded tremendous power because such a big portion of the public supported, or at least tolerated, it. By the end of the 1960s, though, after millions had marched to protest the war in Vietnam precisely because they wanted a better America, the charge of "un-American" sounded like the empty fulminations of a powerless right.
Now, as then, it's ultimately all about power. The "pro-Israel" right aims to use the "anti-Semitic" slur to put critics of Israeli policy in a politically powerless group - the true anti-Semitic fanatics, who have no credibility in the US political arena. The charge of anti-Semitism hurts not only because it is so unfair, but because it is so disempowering. If it sticks, it takes its victims out of any reasonable debate and renders them politically irrelevant. That's precisely why it is hurled so often.
So this slur, like any unjustified slur, is actually an invitation to do political battle, using words as weapons. No battle is without its risks. Yet, rather than shy away from talking about Israel for fear of being called anti-Semitic, peace advocates might want to accept the invitation, for two good reasons. First, they clearly have moral and political truth on their side. The equation "critical of Israel = anti-Semitic" is a propaganda ploy that is used to justify terrible immoralities. And it has no basis in fact.
The proof of that is also the second good reason to join in the political battle. If you accept the invitation, you will have a sizable army of Jewish critics of Israel, past and present, on your side. They are the clearest proof that you can condemn Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic.
In the early days of Zionism, virtually all Orthodox Jews condemned the very idea of a Jewish state. They saw it as a threat to the Jewish life they knew and loved because (as the famous Lubavitcher rebbe said as early as 1903) Zionism was trying to replace religion with nationalism. That view survives today, though only among a very small number of Orthodox anti-Zionists. Right or wrong, it grows out of a deep concern for the best interests of the Jewish people as they see it. It's certainly not anti-Semitic.
From the earliest days of Zionism, there were also Zionists who spoke out against immoral treatment of Palestinian Arabs. The eminent Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha'am went to Palestine in 1892, heard news of Jewish attacks upon Arabs, and protested eloquently. Not only did the violence diminish the moral standing of the Jews, he warned; it was self-defeating. The Arabs knew perfectly well what they stood to lose, and the more they were attacked, the more they would resist.
Since then, thousands of Zionists who followed Ahad Ha'am's lead have formed the moral conscience of the movement. They loved the Jewish people and the best in its tradition; they wanted to make sure that Zionism promoted the best, rather than dragging Jews down to the worst.
For the same reason, thousands of Israeli Jews today criticize their government as harshly as any of its critics here in the US. The kind of criticism that earns charges of anti-Semitism here has always been taken for granted in Israel as a routine part of the political scene. Just read the opinion page of Israel's premier newspaper Ha'aretz almost any day to see how fierce the debate can be. Yet, it's always about differing views on the best way to help the Jewish people, not how to harm them. That's hardly anti-Semitic.
The same debate is now entering the mainstream of the American Jewish community, too. People who have being doing Jewish peace work here for a long time are astonished to find critical views that were once taboo now part of the Jewish conversation here, just as they've always been in Israel.
Here, as there, they certainly incite strong emotions. Indeed the spurious charges of "anti-Semitism" reflect the increasingly shrill hysteria of right-wing Jews. They once had the political field to themselves, but now they're fighting to keep whatever power and influence they have in their community. That's why they approach every discussion of the issue as a pitched battle, using the "anti-Semitism" slur as a favorite weapons. So, in the short run we may hear that slur more often.
But in the long run, like the "un-American" silliness of the 1950s, it will fade away. And the more people speak out against the right-wingers, explaining how peace and reconciliation are in the best interest of Jews as well as Palestinians, the faster it will fade away. Eventually, we are likely to reach the point that many American peace activists reached in the late 60s, when we took the charge of being "anti-American" ironically and learned to laugh about it. So, perhaps there can be something funny in talking about the tragic Middle East conflict, and even the "anti-Semitic" slur, after all.
If you do choose to voice your critical views of Israel, there are two more serious questions to ask yourself. First, might there be a shred of truth in the charge of anti-Semitism? We are all products of a society full of prejudices we are trying to escape. We all harbor feelings we wish we didn't have. But those feelings don't define who we are. Lots of people who criticize Israeli policies may carry some tinge of anti-Semitism that was imprinted in childhood. That doesn't make them anti-Semites.
An "anti-Semite" is someone whose every response to anything any Jew says or does is automatically hateful, just because the person is Jewish. There are some of those people around. But it's not very likely you are one of them. (If you were, you probably wouldn't have read this far.) So, you can learn to distinguish between your prejudices and your legitimate criticisms of other people's behavior, no matter what their ethnicity or religion. It's much easier to make that distinction if you acknowledge all your feelings, even the ones you wish you didn't have.
A second question to ask: Is this the right time and place to voice your criticisms? There are situations in which it just isn't worth the effort, because the result will be painful and there's no chance of the person hurling the "anti-Semite" charge being reached at all by your response. That's a judgment call, which often has to be made on the spur of the moment. Often, it's not easy.
And if you are talking or writing to someone who can't endure criticism of Israel, but might otherwise be open to forming a relationship with you, it might make sense to put off your criticism to a later time. Once the relationship is developed, your new friend might be able to hear you, think about what you say and, perhaps, even change their own mind. So, giving up the satisfaction of speaking your truth for the time being might be the practical way to go.
The point is that sometimes it makes sense to back away from speaking out in the face of the "anti-Semite" charge. It doesn't always mean that you've let yourself be stifled by fear of a nasty epithet.
Most of the time, though, you can feel quite sure that you are serving the best interests of the Jewish people - as well as the Palestinians, the Americans, and everyone else - by saying what you believe, openly and honestly. There's a new air of free debate on this issue among Jews and non-Jews alike, reaching even to the Oval Office. It's likely to spur renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine, leading to the peace they eventually must and will create. And it's surely going to strengthen democracy. For all those gains, an occasional slur of "anti-Semite" is probably a price worth paying.